Arguably, the central way in which experts improve is by deliberate practice, and by deliberate practice I mean near-daily extended practice with the intent of improving. As such, deliberate practice is not simply mindlessly repeating an action over and over again, since one can do this without aiming to improve. For example, a child might play Für Elise on the piano ten times in a row merely to get her required practice over, yet never intend to get better—and never get better—in the process. (My children, of course, would never do that!). In contrast, when engaging in deliberate practice, the process and the practitioner aims at improvement; that is, the activities are such that they lead to improvement, and they are performed in order to improve.
The psychologist Anders Ericsson, whose work has been instrumental in illustrating how, when one is already at a high level of skill, deliberate practice is necessary for improvement, sees deliberate practice as involving “[d]eliberate efforts to improve one’s performance beyond its current level [and] demands full concentration and often requires problem-solving and better methods of performing the tasks” (2008: p. 31); it is, as Ericsson characterizes it elsewhere, “very high on relevance for performance, high on effort, and comparatively low on inherent enjoyment” (Ericsson et al. 1993: p. 373). For example, a dancer might engage in deliberate practice when she works time and time again on a certain step, analyzing what went wrong and trying to incorporate corrections (both her own and from others). A chess player’s deliberate practice might encompass, among other things, studying past games, exploring lines, working on openings and studying the games and weakness of specific openings. In other words, experts push themselves.86
In contrast to deliberate practice is mere repetition, which leads to the type of automaticity that we attain in, say, tying our shoes. Such automaticity, according to Ericsson, leads to “arrested development” (2008: p. 991). As he explains:
When performance has reached this level of automaticity and effortless execution, additional experience will not improve the accuracy of behavior nor refine the structure of the mediating mechanisms, and consequently, the amount of accumulated experience will not be related to higher levels of performance. (ibid.).
Deliberate practice, for Ericsson, prevents the attainment of automaticity and allows for ongoing improvement. “The key challenge for aspiring expert performers,” he tells us, “is to avoid the arrested development associated with automaticity,” and the way to accomplish this, on his view, is by “actively setting new goals and higher performance standards, which require them to increase speed, accuracy, and control over their actions” (ibid.). Deliberate practice aims to achieve goals just beyond one’s reach, thus avoiding automaticity, and thereby allowing for improvement. Since an automatic action is one that is habitually performed the same way over and over again, as he sees it, improvement requires one to break that habit.87
Deliberate practice is often effortful and analytical and seems to be essential to improvement at a high level. Yet deliberate practice is not itself contrary to the just-do-it principle. Proponents of just-do-it can (and for the most part do) accept the idea that experts engage in deliberate practice, since on their view it is not expert practice that is effortless and automatic, but expert performance. Yet I want to suggest that something like deliberate practice, what I refer to as “deliberate improvement,” is an ongoing activity that occurs not only during what we would normally think of as practice (such as what might occur during a rehearsal), but also during performance.
Ericsson claims that although deliberate practice is an essential to improving skill, such improvement typically does not occur during performance: “In a professional environment with real-time demands, it is generally necessary to wait until the end of ongoing activity before one is able to reflect on how the mistake happened and what could be changed to avoid a similar, future problem” (2008: p. 922). He elaborates:
When people are engaged in professional activities, public performances and competitions, it is difficult to engage in learning and training because it is not possible to stop the ongoing activity during a public music performance. Instead, the professionals need to proceed and make any necessary adjustments to minimize the perceptible effects of the disruption and maximize the chances for a successful overall outcome (ibid.).
I agree with the idea that improvement requires one to step out of the automatic mode of acting, yet I suggest that, in at least many domains, expert performance involves improvement as well. To be sure, an expert may not be able to work to improve in the same way during a performance or tournament that she might work to improve during practice. A dancer who makes a mistake in practice, for example, can stop and go over that one passage numerous times before starting the entire piece again; during a performance, however, though she cannot stop and/or repeat her actions, she still might focus particularly intently on a troublesome spot, or notice that something could be done better next time, or even give herself a little lecture while performing as to what to do.